May 02, 2010

Canadian theaters rewrite Peter Pan

Sensitivity training in Neverland

By J. Kelly NestruckWhen two new versions of Scottish dramatist J.M. Barrie's famous 1904 work began runs last week–at Halifax's Neptune Theatre and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (preview performances)–they removed any references to “Indians” or “redskins” from their text.

While Tiger Lily's tribe is still in both productions, its members no longer bear any resemblance to North America's aboriginal peoples.

So: What's up, Tiger Lily? Well, while Peter Pan remains a beloved and enduring work of children's (and adults’) literature, the century-old story of the boy who would not grow up has been causing controversy of late.

Back in December, Neptune found itself in hot water when a casting announcement for its production of the 1954 musical version went out calling for “Pirates/Indians.” After being contacted by angry artists, artistic director George Pothitos quickly sent out an apology: “It was an oversight on our part, not realizing how offensive that might be to some first-nations people.”
The solution:Carroll's solution has been to recast the Tiger Lily's tribe as Amazons, the women warriors of Greek mythology. The decision has paid off thematically, he says, adding a mysterious female hinterland to the very male world of Neverland's Lost Boys and pirates. It has also been a blessing in terms of casting, allowing him to use more female members of the Stratford company. (Countering tradition, Carroll has cast a man–Michael Therriault–in the role of Peter Pan, rather than a woman.) Meanwhile, at Neptune, the brouhaha over the casting notice sparked Pothitos's thinking about how to portray the Neverland Indians from the Peter Pan musical, which has music by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne, and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

“At the time, we had just put out a casting call and the designs weren't in yet,” he says. “So I decided we'd produce our own Neverland, with a tribe not based on any one ethnicity.”

In Pothitos's version, which opened yesterday, Tiger Lily's mystical tribe is inspired by paintings by primitivist Henri Rousseau as well as bits and pieces of Mayan, Egyptian and East Indian culture.

No one will be wearing a feather headband or saying “ugh.” In fact, all mentions of “Indians” have been removed from the dialogue, which had already been updated to eliminate “redskins” years ago.
Comment:  Glad to see someone's taking the advice in Making Peter Pan Authentic? There I said, "Replace the Indians with a fictional race--elves or Munchkins or whatever--and the story would work just as well."

But I'm not sure Amazons or a mishmash of "Mayan, Egyptian and East Indian" cultures is an ideal solution. I still say make the tribe a fictional one--one with no ties to reality. That way there's no chance of offending anyone.

The "of late" part is off too. I believe Indians have been protesting the 1953 Disney movie for decades--perhaps since the 1960s.

For more on the subject, see Peter Pan = Harmless Fantasy? and Stereotypes in Peter Pan Sequel.

Below:  You can see the Indian replacements at the video's 0:44 mark. They have headdresses like Indians and grass skirts like Polynesians. Not an improvement, people. If anything, it takes the "Indians = pirates and fairies" problem and extends it to indigenous people worldwide.

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